Lily Pond I, Frank Satogata, (acrylic and oil pastel on canvas, 22x32)

By: Daniel Brown

Uniting gestural abstraction and calligraphic mark making, Frank Satogata celebrates nature’s beautiful juxtapositions.

TWO APPROACHES to the globalized art market, though widely different, have evolved on parallel tracks. On the one hand, there’s an internationalized art market predicated on our consumerist culture and the consequent adoration of and obsession with American popular culture. This internationalized art is theory-driven and postmodernist in intention. International art fairs are replete with contemporary art of this ilk; its underpinnings revolve around examinations of race, gender and class through the revolving treadmills of power relationships. One size almost fits all.

The other, more interesting, strain is what we can call hybrid. Once marginalized as provincial or regional, hybrid art combines aspects of seemingly different cultural aesthetics, from which the most original art, in my opinion, emerges. Frank Satogata’s work is an excellent example. Hawaiian-born of Japanese parents, Satogata combines three approaches: the sweeping, gestural painterliness of American Abstract Expressionism; the calligraphic linearity of Japanese painting, and the reductive mark making of expressionists like the recently deceased Cy Twombly. Satogata’s work falls into the modernist camp in that it evidences the liberation of color from Western realist exactitude (as manifest in the pictures of Vincent van Gogh, Matisse, Ellsworth Kelly and so on). In other words (and paraphrasing Matisse), when Satogata paints green, it doesn’t mean grass, and when he paints blue, it doesn’t mean sky. Added to this wide range of influences is the fact that the artist is Japanese. “I have a dual identity,” says Satogata.

He explains: “The first (identity) comprises the Western tradition that prizes the creation of an illusion; in the second, parallel (Eastern) world, spontaneous brushstrokes create paintings that are purely subjective. Japanese calligraphy, although created from pictograms as a visual language, soon developed a loose, cursive style (sosho) whose practitioners’ ultimate aim became the beauty of the brushstrokes. Legibility became secondary to the beauty of the gesture.”

Works Continually in Progress

Sacred to “the beauty of the gesture” is speed. Acrylics are what Satogata prefers “because they dry so quickly.” He uses acrylics for the sweeping arcs of color, and then he uses oil pastels for calligraphic marks. Visit his studio, in which he also has a graphic design business, and you’ll see a table filled with small, 12×12-inch pieces; all the squares on that table are “in progress.” As the works are continually addressed and added to, each one becomes a sequence of layers; each layer adds to rather than obliterates the preceding one. “It’s important,” he says, “that the evidence of process shows through; I want part of each layer to be exposed in the final work.”

If the process is continual, so in a way is the product, because he creates two different kinds of works. The first is small landscapes or florals that are complete on their own. The second is long, vertical, scroll-like works—the result of manipulating the smaller works in Photoshop. “I give the completed image that’s composed of many layers, with calligraphy scanned as one of the layers, to a printing company that converts the digital high-resolution, 300-dpi image and transfers it onto paper. The image is then printed from the paper onto the aluminum in a heat process that’s called dye sublimation. There’s special ink, along with special paper, required for the transfer, and the resulting surface is smooth because the image is embedded into the aluminum.

Just as the smaller pieces inform the larger ones, the larger, aluminum pieces can serve as inspiration for the smaller ones. Every aspect of Satogata’s creative process is circular, ongoing.

The Natural World

In both bodies of work, Satogata evinces a sympathy for landscapes because he doesn’t “like to work with defined shapes.” Instead of depicting the contours of objects, he works with adjacent shapes and swirls of color; there are almost no literal associations. “It takes very little to define a person or an object,” he adds, and he sees and draws the landscape exactly as an architect would not. Like the great Asian artists of the past, Satogata creates essences rather than likenesses.

So luminous is the surface that, to Western eyes, his paintings may seem to hark back to the staining technique associated with Helen Frankenthaler and Sam Gilliam, when actually Satogata’s process involves a great deal of scraping away (with a palette knife) of extraneous surface colors until he reaches the original base (see an online demonstration: Warm/Cool in Alteration). The artist, it must be remembered, is never duplicating what he sees, but chooses instead to be “open to accidents, incorporating them into a finished piece.” Satogata’s surfaces are so dense in layers and so replete with painterly gestures that it’s a shock to learn that he usually starts a picture by studying a realistic, but usually somewhat blurred, photograph of an actual scene or terrain.

Starting with the Complements

Satogata’s layering process starts with a gestural application of acrylic on board. For this first layer, he uses the complements of whatever colors he imagines his final layer will show. For example, if the landscape he envisions is blue and green, he will start with acrylic washes of orange and red. Surface is important to him. “Creating a variety of textures is one of my primary concerns,” he says. “I use a lot of unconventional tools, like metal combs and brushes, trowels and chisels.” In contrast, traditional Japanese scroll and screen paintings are known for their extreme flatness. The gold or silver leaf which constitutes the ground in Japanese screens seems to be recycled, however, as small, abstract squares or rectangles of gold or silver shimmering across the surface.

The Push/Pull of Color

The process is at once additive and reductive; after he’s removed some passages or layers, he starts playing with colors that push/pull forward or backward, as in Hans Hofmann’s work. “Abstraction,” Satogata reminds us, “is a balance of form, shape, color and value.” Satogata says he’s been influenced by the numinous landscapes of George Inness and the lyrical abstractions of Willem de Kooning, but we can also see both the luminosity of the Hudson River School painters and the schematic order of Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series.

After all, what we interpret as landscape is simply light’s interaction with and upon color; this visual phenomenon—and the viewer’s translation—is the key element in every Satogata painting. His work, using nature as a referent, moves along a relatively narrow spectrum from the nearly totally abstract to the semirepresentational.

Calligraphic Gesture

The joy in mark making, or making art as a culmination of mark making, entered the aesthetic lexicon somewhere during the ’80s. In Satogata’s case, mark making is indistinguishable from what painters commonly refer to as the gesture: Both concepts equate with the calligraphic background Satogata has absorbed from Japanese art. Calligraphy is the other integral force in his paintings. All Asian art is based upon calligraphy, and this history, combined with American abstraction and luminosity, affirms Satogata’s core interest in the spontaneous brushstroke and the ultimate balance of color and shapes, which he studied in the paintings of Richard Diebenkorn and Jackson Pollock. Neither Diebenkorn nor Pollock had a preconceived notion of precisely where a painting in process was headed. Each mark or stroke of color became a reaction to the others that preceded them. Such is how a Satogata picture grows or accrues, using layering as his preferred technique for the placement of color. “The most important thing,” Satogata says, “is not worrying about making mistakes, but reacting to everything you’ve laid down. Spontaneous is not synonymous with arbitrary. It’s important not to have a preconceived idea of the finished product.”

Like other Asian painters, Satogata works with his entire arm, not just with the hand and wrist, the normative Western method. A newer interest for Satogata is the work of the contemporary English-born Andy Goldsworthy, who, in addition to painting, produces site-specific sculpture. Both Satogata’s and Goldsworthy’s marks evidence a presence that’s noted as much for the marks’ potential to vanish as to endure.

Satogata’s hybrid, allusive style encourages felicitous combinations. His gestural approach is exceptional when he examines the color white and interprets various flowers in full bloom. White is the summation of all color, and Satogata’s reductivism and relayering allow him to see—and paint—all sorts of colors within white blossoms, an interest recently expressed in a large series of paintings of water lilies (Hawaiian in origin, Satogata’s calligraphically expressionist lilies and other flowers have no reference to Monet or his Giverny gardens). The calligraphic touch and the placement of each mark (read as petal) are so perfectly pitched that Satogata’s flowers and trees feel as if they’re bursting into bloom right before our eyes. This feat mesmerizes viewers, reminding us of those early spring days, when we long for buds to burst open, yet always miss the moment when they do. More importantly, the blooms embody one of Japan’s most exacting aesthetics—that all things are evolving and dissolving into both form and nothingness.

Ultimately, capturing the moment of birth/bloom and decay/death is Satogata’s aim. The Japanese aesthetic values the colors and attendant associations of very early spring and very late fall. The greatest Japanese paintings are about the transience of life. The mode of expression often depends on juxtaposition. Frank Satogata should be viewed as a painter who combines abstraction, luminosity, mark making, color layering and the autonomy of the accident as methods of refreshing and rejuvenating one of world art’s greatest traditions. His blossoms are haiku in paint.

Meet Frank Satogata

“In embracing two parallel worlds, my paintings intend to bridge the gap between subject-oriented and nonobjective paintings,” says Satogata, who was born in Honolulu. “My personal calligraphy is the primary focus, the thread that’s consistent throughout all the work.” During his early career, Satogata worked as a freelance art director for The Artist’s Magazine. He studied at the University of Minnesota, the Heatherly School of Fine Art in London (England), the Columbus College of Art and Design (Ohio) and Syracuse University (New York). In addition, he has taught at the University of Cincinnati and the Art Academy of Cincinnati (Ohio). To see more of his work, go to

Article reprinted with permission from The Artist’s Magazine. You can purchase this specific issue of The Artist’s Magazine (June 2012), which includes Daniel Brown’s article, Color of Wind, Sound of Water.


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